Murray Waas is an independent investigative journalist who has reported on the special counsel’s investigation of President Trump and related controversies of the Trump administration for Vox, Foreign Policy, and The New York Times. He has worked as investigations editor, most recently, for Vice, as an investigative correspondent for Reuters, and as a staff writer for National Journal. He has also written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the category of national reporting, a winner of John F. Kennedy School’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting (1993), a winner of the Barlett & Steele Business Investigative Reporting Prize (2010), and a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation. (July 2018)
These new disclosures of what Trump said in the draft letter terminating James Comey as FBI director highlight the central parts played in the affair by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Even though Trump had provided them copies of the draft letter, the nation’s two top federal law enforcement officials agreed to assist the president in his effort to fire Comey. Notably, Rosenstein has said he had no reason to believe that Trump fired Comey to undercut the FBI’s Russia investigation until after Comey’s firing. The draft letter appears to directly contradict that claim.
In May 2017, then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein agreed to assist President Trump in an effort to fire James Comey as FBI director despite Rosenstein’s knowing beforehand that the president had devised a false cover story to conceal the fact that he was firing Comey for his oversight of the FBI’s Russia investigation. President Trump gave Rosenstein a draft of a letter to then FBI Director Comey, in which the president justified his firing of Comey with a concocted story claiming that, at the beginning of his presidency, Trump had retained Comey on a probationary or trial period only, because of what he described as Comey’s poor job performance. After reading this draft letter, Rosenstein agreed to write a memorandum for the president severely criticizing Comey’s handling of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton. The White House used Rosenstein’s memo as its initial public rationale to explain Comey’s firing.
A government official with first-hand knowledge of the matter told me that Jeff Sessions enlisted his subordinates to lie on his behalf that he did not know he was under federal investigation when he fired then Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. In addition to firing McCabe, Sessions, while under investigation, played a leading role in more broadly carrying out President Trump’s relentless campaign to undermine and discredit the FBI. Several leading experts on legal ethics have told me that Sessions’s simultaneous and dual roles almost certainly violated the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct and federal government conflict of interest regulations. That demonstrates both the utility of Sessions’ misstatements, and the gravity of the situation he faced.
Privately, two prosecutors who were then employed in the special counsel’s office told other Justice Department officials that had it not been for the unique nature of the case—the investigation of a sitting president of the United States—they would have advocated that Trump face federal criminal charges. These DOJ officials made this disclosure to me in part because of what they regarded as Attorney General Barr’s misrepresentations of the Mueller report, and they believed it was important for the public and Congress to know what Mueller’s prosecutors had privately concluded: that a charge of obstruction of justice was indeed merited by Trump’s actions in the Flynn matter.
With the delivery of the Mueller report, even partly redacted as it is, Congress now has firm evidence, based on testimony from the White House Counsel and others, of a clear “nexus to a proceeding” and “corrupt intent” in the president’s conduct in pressuring Comey to end the investigation of Flynn. Not only does the Mueller report not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice, but it has also given Congress a clear path to pursue the charge.
On March 2, former Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker abruptly resigned from a new Justice Department position only two weeks into the job—after he learned that he would likely be fired if he refused to answer questions from the department’s Inspector General about his controversial tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official. As a result, investigators may never learn whether President Trump attempted to enlist Whitaker in an effort to impede a federal criminal investigation into whether the president himself conspired to violate campaign finance laws.
When Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker accepted the role of overseeing the Mueller investigation, he failed to disclose to Department of Justice ethics officers that, as head of a conservative watchdog group, he had previously cooperated with senior White House aides of President Trump in finding ways to attack the work of the special counsel. If Whitaker had revealed these discussions with the White House and his actions on Trump’s behalf, they would almost certainly have compelled his recusal from oversight of the special counsel. According to a senior Justice official, Whitaker may face investigation by the department’s inspector general over his omission.
To date, Mike Pence has played the part of deferential deputy to a president who, above all, demands loyalty from his subordinates. But it is clear from this new account that the vice president interceded forcefully with the president about firing Flynn. And it is also clear that Pence was in command of the facts about whether Flynn had lied to him, and possibly to the FBI, and was under criminal investigation. If Special Counsel Robert Mueller chooses to question the vice president, Pence could become the most important witness not yet heard from in the special counsel’s investigation of President Trump for possible obstruction of justice.